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A LIFE OF GRIME

26-07-2007

In the first of a two-parter about old Birmingham, The Stirrer's Laurence Inman recalls an era when every building was blackened with soot, and that "because you're worth it" smell was probably horse manure.

I read an interesting quote from David Trimble, the former Northern Ireland politician, last week: ‘My children are doing me in history now.

He was having one of those time-really-means-it moments. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. The sudden realization that they’re allowing people born in 1989 to be eighteen, that it’s been forty years since the release of Sgt Pepper, that forty years before that it was 1927, that film of the Falklands War (which happened just the other day) looks distinctly pale and grainy, that the time of your own childhood seems now as remote as the Crimea.

It doesn’t help that books like the wonderful Austerity Britain 1945-51 by David Kynaston and Andrew Marr’s spellbinding TV series A History of Modern Britain were so popular. Or that the back-to-backs in Hurst Street are packed out with people who look like your grandparents, but who you realise deep down are the same age as you.

I spent the first four years of my life in a house in a courtyard just like that, in Ledsam Street, Ladywood.

I’ve tried to explain to my own kids what life was like back then, but they look at me as if I were a Martian, or turn away until they think I’m over it. They simply don’t believe that it’s possible to live without a TV, a phone, a fridge, hot running water, an inside lavatory or a car.

Those are the obvious things you’d notice the lack of if you were suddenly transported back. There are other, not more subtle, but more easily forgotten aspects of everyday which would forcefully claim your attention straightaway.

A young child today might end up living his whole life without ever seeing a horse in the flesh, but when I was small I would see loads of them every day.

There were huge stone troughs in the street where they could drink. And of course, their waste material, liquid and solid, was a permanent hazard for anyone crossing the roads. People would shovel it up and put it on their rose-beds, but they could still only get rid of a small fraction of it.

In this respect, big cities in 1950 were exactly the same as they were in 1850. Imagine Central London in Dickens’ day. Streets were ankle-deep in the stuff. Then it would rain. Or a yellow fog would descend and dampen everything. Young boys made a living sweeping busy crossings so that women didn’t smear their dresses in it.

And the smell!

The other big pong in those days was industrial pollution. Railway engines belched out this grey/white/yellow toxic mixture of steam, grit, sulphur, soot and smoke which settled on and clung to everything. Factory chimneys did the same, only higher up. All public buildings were matt black.

When they were eventually cleaned up they looked smaller, probably because a good six inches of filth had been blasted off every surface.

I once bought a Dandy at the shop over the road from us and accidentally dropped it on the road. I didn’t read Korky the Cat that week; the front page was coated with greasy soot which nothing could move.

Even in the early 70s the cityscape of north Manchester looked just like those old lithographs of a hundred years before. A twenty-year-old girl (I know this for certain) wearing a white dress could sit on the grass in Boggart Hole Clough in Blackley and discover on rising that it was skid-marked, not with green stains, but indelible black ones.

She would then blame her hapless companion for not warning her and ruin his eagerly-awaited Friday night. As if it was his fault! I mean, bloody hell!

That smell of the railway is the most evocative for anyone who grew up then. It still hangs around in parts of New Street Station, if you know where to sniff.

On that note, I must go. My son, who takes being a student to extremes, has just appeared over my shoulder, told me to stop being an old fart and make him his breakfast. It is midday after all.

There will be more memories of Old Brum next week.

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